During the 1950s, a young medical student named Carleton Gajdusek traveled to New Guinea to research an unusual disease that was killing members of a native tribe called the Fore. Gajdusek discovered that these tribe members were engaging in Endo-cannibalism, which is the practice of eating members of one’s own tribe. This unusual habit enabled tribe members to add much needed protein to their diet, after the victim had died of natural causes. Upon inspection of the victim’s brains, Gajdusek discovered holes in the brain tissue that resembled sponges. He coined the term transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. He discovered that once the tribe members stopped their cannibalistic ways, the disease went away. He wrote several papers on this new discovery, and things remained rather quiet on this subject until the mid-1980s, when the disease reared its ugly head in cattle in Great Britain.
Cattle are herbivores. For millennia, they have been grazing in grassy fields, consuming mostly hay, as cattle prefer grass to the more dense nutrients such as grain. In a realistic world, one would not expect to see cattle eating the corpses of other cattle. However, in an ironic twist, this is exactly what happened in Great Britain in April of 1985.1 Dr. Colin Whitaker, a veterinarian, received a phone call from a dairy client concerning a cow that was behaving strangely. Upon inspection of the cow, and its unruly, aggressive behavior, the cow was then monitored for several weeks, and when conditions worsened, the animal was eventually destroyed, and sent to the Knacker’s yard (a rendering plant in England). As more and more cows came down with similar symptoms, scientists could not identify the disease causing agent, and the media coined the term Mad Cow disease, named after the unruly, aggressive behavior exhibited by the sick, or downer, animals.
In the early 1980s in Great Britain, the animal rendering industry took it upon themselves to introduce a new form of protein supplement made from dead cattle and sheep.2 In Britain, it was common to see trucks loaded with the heads and offal of cattle from a slaughterhouse traveling down the highway to rendering plants. When this new product, a thick soup of fatty dead animals, was mixed with cattle feed, it could significantly increase milk production in cows. This cooked paste was commonly referred to as meat-and-bone meal, and was fed to cattle to increase their protein consumption. Cattle that were vegetarians for thousands of years suddenly became cannibals due to the economic necessity to increase milk production and gain weight. Cows normally produce approximately 35 pounds of milk a day when fed a steady diet of alfalfa and other grain supplements. Cows eating alfalfa mixed with a high power protein supplement could now produce approximately 130 pounds of milk a day.3 The added expense of purchasing this protein feed was offset by the profit margins from the increased volume of milk production. If an individual farm was not using protein supplement, then they were going out of business.
As the disease began to spread throughout English farms, a committee was set up to investigate the disease organism. Scientists concluded that the disease was a spongiform encephalopathy, or a disease of the brain that left minute sponge-like holes in brain tissue. BSE, or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy was the new buzzword for a new disease. The committee also determined that the possible cause of the BSE was food contamination, and immediately recommended a ban on feeding ruminant-derived protein to ruminants. Then the unthinkable occurred – the disease jumped from one species to another as two dairy farmers died of a form of spongiform encephalopathy known as CJD, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy.4 Then, unexpectedly, a fifteen year old girl came down with a terrible disease that left her feeling weak and unsteady on her feet, similar to the unsteadiness exhibited by sick cattle. She was eventually diagnosed with CJD, or Mad Cow Disease. A physician investigator from the government visited her mother and warned her to keep quiet about the disease. He implored her to think about the consequences of the damage to the common market.5 All meat products in Great Britain, such as steaks and hamburger, as well as other associated meat products and milk products, could possibly contain the fatal CJD disease organism. An act as mundane as eating a hamburger could result in the 100 percent fatal affliction known as Mad Cow Disease.
As of February 2004, the total cases of CJD, both dead and alive, stand at 146 in Great Britain. However, the number of people exposed to the disease could be in the millions, or possibly hundreds of millions.6 The disease could take as long as 30 years to incubate.
Many people who travel to the United States from Britain are not allowed to donate blood here in the US for fear of the transmission of the disease. Great Britain slaughtered over 3.7 million cattle and almost destroyed its entire cattle industry. The disease continues to haunt Great Britain and especially parts of Europe that received imports of cattle and cattle parts from Great Britain.
Could the disease be here in the United States? Many scientists believe the disease is already here, and amateur researchers, like Janet Skarbek of Cinnaninson, New Jersey, who uncovered the Cherry Hill cluster, believes that CJD clusters are forming all around the United States. In January of 2000, one of Janet’s friends, a woman named Carrie, came home from a party and exhibited one of the symptoms of the disease, characterized by unsteadiness in her walk. She was diagnosed with sporadic CJD, or Mad Cow Disease, and thereafter died. Sporadic CJD affects about one person per million in the United Sates.7 A few years went by and Janet recalls reading an obituary in her local newspaper and discovered that a few more people had died from CJD. She then began to search for more victims of CJD in the Lexis-Nexis database and discovered that all of the people who died had one thing in common - they visited and ate at the Garden State Race Track in New Jersey. Janet Skarbek tracked down twelve more people who died from CJD after visiting the Garden State Racetrack. In addition, she was able to take the CDC to task, and using basic probability theory, she was able to compute given a total of 1,100 people who had season passes at the racetrack, scientists should see one case every 909 years, based on the one in one million rate of sporadic CJD. 8 She proved, using probability theory, that a cluster of this size should never occur in one geographic region. This case was definitely a cluster, and most probably occurred by humans eating contaminated beef. The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, disputes Janet’s amateur scientific theory, and presented their own paper on their website, refuting her research and affirming their belief that all of the cases represent sporadic CJD.
Deborah Norville, a MSNBC anchor, had a show titled Deborah Norville Tonight. On the April 22, 2004 edition of the show, she discussed the Mad Cow Disease with the theme, could it happen in America. She reported that clusters of the disease in humans were showing up in Pennsylvania, Florida, Oregon, New York, Texas and New Jersey. One guest on the show explained her theory of why her son came down with CJD, and she believes it was the beef by-products in the protein supplements he was consuming to gain weight while weight training. Norville went on to report that countries like Japan, test all of their beef for BSE before it is sold to consumers, while the Unites States tests just a small fraction of beef before it is sent to consumers. Norville pointed out one specific case of a cattle ranch called Creekstone Farms in Kansas. This farm has invested more that $500, 000 into a Mad Cow testing laboratory so they can test all of their cattle before they are slaughtered. This would enable them to sell their cattle to Japan. However, the US Department of Agriculture will not allow the testing of individual cattle, and they even issued a statement to Creekstone Farms: “The use of the test as proposed by Creekstone would have implied a consumer safety aspect that is not scientifically warranted.” The show was then preempted by the Michael Jackson arrest in California. Many people speculated that the Cattleman’s Beef Association had something to do with the preemption. Deborah Norville left MSNBC a few weeks later and claimed she wanted to spend more time with her family. To date, Creekstone Farms has been in an ongoing legal battle with the USDA and has recently lost an appeal to test for BSE. As it stands now, according to Creekstone Farms’ website, Creekstone is barred from testing its cattle for BSE.
Another offshoot of BSE, is TSE, or Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy. This disease is appearing in the western states, has infected deer and elk, and is moving eastward. It is called CWD, or Chronic Wasting Disease. It first appeared in the Wildlife Research Facility in Fort Collins, Colorado in 1967.9 This disease is so contagious that nose-to-nose contact, or the simple act of a deer eating grass around an area that another infected deer urinated on, can spread the disease. Can the disease spread to humans? Most scientists agree that it is possible, and many cases have been reported of hunters, after eating venison, who have come down with CJD. One such case is Jay Dee Whitlock who died in 2000 after eating venison from the deer he shot while hunting.10 Most states that allow hunting will test the game for CWD, and if it is positive, the game officials then recommend discarding the carcass. They also warn, in their game publications, to be aware of the signs of CWD, and report such animals to their respective game officials.
In response to a question from reporters about the safety of the US beef supply, President George W. Bush responded that he eats beef everyday. Since the USDA does not want each individual cattle tested for Mad Cow Disease, and will bring suit to prevent such testing, a undercover investigation revealed a video of slaughterhouse workers kicking and shoving sick and crippled cows with all kinds of cruel devices at a slaughterhouse in Chino, California.11 These animals were then sent to slaughter. Most of the time government inspectors are so short staffed at slaughter houses that they must peer down from towers at thousands of cattle below them to identify ones that are sick, or downer cattle. This antemortem inspection is the only test required by the USDA before cattle are sent to slaughter. In some cases, such as the undercover video, government inspectors were not even present. These chronic shortages of staff invariably allow sick cattle to get through the inspectors and enter the food supply. The largest beef recall in history, 143 million pounds from a California meatpacker occurred because they allowed sick and downer cattle to enter the food supply.
The battle for safe beef consumption continues worldwide after Korea banned US beef in 2003 after a case of Mad Cow Disease was reported in the state of Washington. South Korea has since allowed beef imports from the US under certain conditions. One of these conditions is the importation of beef under 30 months of age. In 2006, South Korea has eased restrictions to allow some imports of boneless beef.12
Mad Cow Disease is here to stay in the United States. The conditions that lead to the emergence of BSE in Great Britain are present in the US. The rendering industry, allied with the cattle industry, must maximize profits by increasing the milk production of cows, and increasing the weight and muscular content of cattle, by rendering dead cows into protein, and then feeding this protein back to cows. This is cannibalism and has lead to the unsafe practices that gave birth to Mad Cow Disease and Chronic Wasting disease. Both of these diseases are incurable and 100 percent fatal. The South Koreans have also brought forth the issue of the age of the cattle in BSE. Since BSE is a slow moving disease, and can incubate for years, are US cattle being slaughtered before the disease can manifest itself to inspectors? Is this the standard operating procedure in the United States cattle industry – to kill the cattle before the disease can infect the beef? Is the USDA allied with the Cattleman’s Association to conceal one of the greatest epidemics of all time that is about to explode on the world stage? Why is the USDA preventing Creekstone farms from testing every individual cattle for BSE? What are they afraid of? Why does Creekstone want to test every individual cattle? Are they aware of the fact that most of the cattle are already infected with BSE, and slaughtering them at an early age, before the disease can manifest itself, is an immoral antidote to a serious epidemic that has blown itself out of control?
- Rhodes, Richard. Deadly Feasts. New York. Simon & Schuster. 1997. P.171
- ibid. P. 178.
- Shell, Ellen Ruppel. “Could Mad-Cow Disease Happen Here?” The Atlantic Monthly September 1998: 4
- ibid. P. 187
- ibid. P. 188
- Waldman, Dr. Murray & Lamb, Marjorie. Dying For a Hamburger. Ontario. McClelland & Stewart Ltd. 2004. P.121
- Max, D.T. “The Case of The Cherry Hill Cluster.” The New York Times Magazine 28 March 2004: P. 2
- ibid. P. 4
- McComb, Brian. Deadly Venison? Field & Stream. February 2001
- Flaccus, Gillian. Inspectors say meat safety is threatened.
- Chang, Sue. “South Koreans Protest U.S. Beef as Unsafe.” MarketWatch. 10 May 2008.